After Hernando Cortes and his troops defeated the Aztecs in the 16th Century, a period of Spanish colonial rule of Mexico that lasted over three centuries began. Conquistadores and explorers spread north and south in search of native populations to defeat and precious metals to mine. By the early 17th Century, Mexico was ruled by a number of so-called encomenderos, who served the Spanish Crown as quasi-feudal lords charged with protecting and converting indigenous people. By bringing smallpox to Mexico from Spain and decimating tribal numbers, the level of “protection” was at least questionable. As for conversion, that was eventually handled by Franciscan and Dominican friars who literally whipped the natives into spiritual shape and order.
The 17th Century was actually a relatively peaceful period in colonial Mexico. A new class of Creole people born in what was called New Spain established great estates with large agricultural areas centered around a sizeable compound called a hacienda, which included a large house for the landowners, servant’s quarters, workshops, gardens, and a church with adjacent graveyard. The Indian population was put to work cultivating crops in the fields, and the contact between Spaniards and natives created a new category of mixed-race people in Mexico, the mestizos. The population of modern-day Mexico is predominantly made up of their ancestors. In the absence of a regular army during the 17th Century, discipline was the domain of the Catholic Church. Catholicism remains the dominant religion in Mexico today.
However, things became less peaceful in the 18th Century. Much of the relative autonomy enjoyed by landowners in Mexico (who had established relative fiefdoms) was scaled back while local taxes were raised as Spain became embroiled in several wars in Europe. The result was a great unrest that resulted in the expulsion of Jesuit priests from Mexico in 1767 as the alliance between the Crown and Church crumbled.
By the end of the 18th Century, Mexico stretched from Yucatan in the south to a string of present-day American states from California to Florida in the north. The American and French revolutions gave hope to native Mexican seeking freedom from Spanish rule. In 1810, a priest named Miguel Hidalgo gave his famous cry for independence, known as “El Grito” (or “The Shout”). The first try for independence failed and Hidalgo was executed, but the seeds had been planted. A second revolution headed by Father Jose Maria Morelos four years later also fell short, but guerrilla warfare continued. Back in Spain, the army seized power in 1821, and shortly thereafter, the Creole landowners in Mexico declared independence. The weakened Spaniards did not have the will to respond militarily so Mexico became a free nation.
Although Mexico was now independent, it was not unified. After a short imperial period in which Agustin I ruled as “emperor,” Mexico became a republic in 1823. Unfortunately, the economy was ravaged after Spanish capital left the country, and Mexico’s elites were divided between two factions: Conservatives who preferred a Catholic-dominated hierarchy backed by an army and a system of monarchy, and liberals who favored a more egalitarian free-trade system of government.
The eventual winner in all this was Antonio de Santa Anna, who began Mexico’s first political dynasty but who also saw the country lose a large chunk of land in the process.
NEXT WEEK: Texas, Porfirio Diaz and a final revolution